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Ford, Capra, and Hitchcock in Prewar Hollywood - JOHN FORD, FRANK CAPRA, ALFRED HITCHCOCK

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While the majority of Hollywood hyphenates in 1940-1941 were former contract directors who parlayed past success and current conditions into producer-director positions, they did so in different ways and under very different circumstances. The careers of Frank Capra, John Ford, and Alfred Hitchcock during the prewar era provide excellent examples of both the producer-director trend and the differences involved. Their filmmaking experiences included both studio-based and independent productions, and their roles ranged from straight contract director to independent producer-director to in-house   independent. Moreover, all three filmmakers specialized in A-class and prestige-level productions, all achieved considerable critical and commercial success, and all three were singled out in 1940-1941 as exemplary individual artists in Hollywood’s factory-oriented production system.


Ford, as mentioned earlier, was held up as a veritable test case for the Hollywood cinema as a director’s medium during the 1939 struggle for DGA recognition. Ironically, however, in that same year Ford signed on with 20th Century-Fox and submitted to the authority of Darryl Zanuck, one of the half-dozen production executives castigated by Capra in his letter to the New York Times . Actually, Ford had already achieved independent producer-director status by 1939 but compromised his hard-won autonomy by signing on with Fox, where the filmmaking resources were far beyond those available to an independent releasing through UA. So was Ford’s salary at Fox, which at $235,000 in 1939 was just short of Zanuck’s ($250,000), although there was no question about their respective positions in the studio power structure. 11 And while his rapport with Zanuck was somewhat strained, Ford’s term with Fox was eminently successful—more so, perhaps, than any other period in his career. Ford’s prewar stint with Fox thus provides an illuminating example of a top director’s role in the studio-based filmmaking process, and particularly of the kind of creative collaboration possible in a studio production unit.

Zanuck established the Ford unit at Fox to handle relatively modest A-class productions designed to build up Henry Fonda’s star stature as well as the studio’s prestige. Zanuck himself personally supervised the unit’s first three pictures: YOUNG MR.LINCOLN , DRUMS ALONG THE MOHAWK (both 1939), and THE GRAPES OF WRATH (released in early 1940). All three Fonda vehicles were solid critical and commercial hits, with THE GRAPES OF WRATH earning five major Oscar nominations, including best picture of 1940, best actor for Fonda, and best director for Ford.

Interestingly enough, Ford’s only producer-director effort during the prewar period was on the sole outside picture which his Fox contract allowed. THE LONG VOYAGE HOME , a 1940 “John Ford Production” for UA, was adapted from Eugene O’Neill’s oneact plays by Dudley Nichols, who had scripted STAGECOACH . The picture impressed critics and scored several Oscar nominations (including best picture), but it was Ford’s lone box-office failure of the period. Ford returned to Fox for two 1941 pictures: TOBACCO ROAD and HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY . The latter was Ford’s consummate achievement during the prewar years at Fox, earning five Academy Awards, including best picture (beating out CITIZEN KANE ) and a second consecutive best-director Oscar for Ford.

While his work at Fox solidified Ford’s position among Hollywood’s leading filmmakers, one would be hard-pressed to term any of them a “John Ford film” in the same way his colleagues and critics had singled out STAGECOACH . During his stint at Fox, which was cut short by a wartime hitch with the Army Signal Corps, Ford was very much a studio contract director operating under the very constraints described by Capra in the Times , and indeed Ford’s “creative” achievement was to provide a distinctive inflection on Fox’s established studio style.

The chief arbiter of that style, without question, was Darryl Zanuck, who closely supervised every phase of the Ford unit’s operations. Zanuck participated most during pre- and postproduction. He personally approved the stories and developed the screen-plays Page 85  for all of Ford’s projects, working closely with the contract writers Lamar Trotti (on DRUMS ALONG THE MOHAWK and YOUNG MR.LINCOLN ), Nunnally Johnson (on THE GRAPES OF WRATH and TOBACCO ROAD ), and Philip Dunne (on HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY ). 12 In each case, Zanuck hammered away at the importance of story and character, and the entertainment value of the story in particular. In fact, he took the writer Ernest Pascal off HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY because, as Zanuck put it in an interoffice memo, “it has turned into a labor story and a sociological problem story, instead of being a great human, warm story about real, living people.” 13 Zanuck was much happier with Dunne, who already had scripted THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS (1936), SUEZ (1938), STANLEY & LIVINGSTONE (1939), and THE RAINS CAME (1939) for Fox. The script for HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY underwent six additional drafts once Dunne was assigned—including a “revised final draft” by Zanuck himself. And Zanuck continued to stress the story and character values even while Ford was shooting. 14 “This is going to be a masterpiece,” he assured Ford in one such memo, “not only a classical masterpiece, but a masterpiece of surefire commercial entertainment.”

This is not to suggest that Zanuck interfered with Ford once a picture was in actual production. Zanuck invariably brought Ford in during the latter stages of scripting to consult on the final draft(s) and also on casting, art direction, and so on. Once shooting began, Zanuck kept his distance, monitoring production through dailies and a regular stream of memos to the set. Zanuck clearly appreciated the quality of Ford’s direction and his ability to work with actors, and he allowed the director virtual autonomy during production. But Zanuck did resume authority once shooting was completed, even on Ford’s projects. Indeed, Ford himself considered Zanuck “a great cutter, a great film editor,” and acknowledged that while at Fox, “I had this tacit agreement that he [Zanuck] would cut the picture.” 16 Production records bear this out, indicating not only that Zanuck supervised the editing of both THE GRAPES OF WRATH and HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY , but that once Ford finished shooting, he did not even see either picture until it was ready for release.


While John Ford’s prewar career carried him from a position of relative independence to a restrictive but highly successful period as a studio-based unit filmmaker, Frank Capra’s career during the same period traced roughly the opposite trajectory. Capra had been Columbia’s top director since the late 1920s and by 1936 was producing his own pictures. In 1938, according to Variety , Capra had the most lucrative contract of any Hollywood director: it paid him $100,000 per film plus bonuses and 25 percent of the profits. 18 Capra maintained a first-class production unit at Columbia built around screenwriter Robert Riskin, cinematographer Joe Walker, and unit manager Sam Briskin; he also was assured the services of one of Columbia’s contract stars (notably Jean Arthur or Barbara Stanwyck) teamed with a major star on loan, such as James Stewart or Gary Cooper. Cohn also provided Capra with top presold properties—Kaufman and Hart’s Broadway hit You Can’t Take It with You , for instance, which Cohn secured for $200,000.

The Capra unit parlayed that investment into another huge hit. Released in late 1938, You CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU dominated the box office in 1939 and won Oscars for best picture and best director—Capra’s third in five years. Capra followed that with MR.SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON , a late-1939 release which was perhaps his most successful film for Columbia. But despite his continued success at the studio, Capra left Columbia in 1939 for three principal reasons: his bitter and well-founded antagonism toward Harry Cohn; the company’s lingering Poverty Row stigma; and his fierce desire to create an independent production company. The time was right for such a move, and Capra entertained a number of attractive offers after he left Columbia. The most ardent suitor had been David Selznick, who offered Capra $200,000 per picture plus a cut of the profits to sign with Selznick International Pictures and release through UA. Selznick also offered Riskin a separate writing contract, with the option to produce and/or direct on his own.

Capra failed to work out a satisfactory long-term deal with UA, however, so he aligned Frank Capra Productions (essentially a partnership with Riskin) with Warner Bros, in a one-picture deal signed February 1940 to produce and direct MEET JOHN DOE . 21 That late-Depression fable starring Gary Cooper recalled such earlier Capra comedy hits as MR .DEEDS GOES TO TOWN and MR.SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON , but it also evinced a dark, brooding quality more typical of Warners at the time. Released by Warners in March 1941, MEET JOHN D OE was not up to Capra’s previous standards but did well at the box office, earning $2 million and keeping Capra’s market value relatively high. 22 Again Capra tried to work out a long-term deal with UA, where Selznick was now the chief executive following Sam Goldwyn’s recent departure. But again negotiations stalled, and in August 1941 Capra signed another one-picture deal with Warners, this time to do a screen adaptation of a current stage hit, Arsenic and Old Lace .

Unlike MEET JOHN DOE , a downbeat story whose only presold appeal was the marquee value of its star and director, ARSENIC AND OLD LACE (1944) was an established commercial property. In fact, Capra deemed the project a money-in-the-bank venture to tide him over financially during a wartime stint with the Signal Corps. As with the previous deal, Warners paid Capra $5,000 a week for a minimum of twenty weeks plus 10 percent of the gross receipts in excess of $1.25 million—a far better deal than the percentage-of-net offers from Columbia and Selznick, since Capra’s high-cost productions had to gross at least $2-3 million before they turned a profit. The cost of ARSENIC AND OLD LACE , for example, included $150,000 for the star Cary Grant and $175,000 for the screen rights to the play, which along with Capra’s $100,000 minimum pushed the total to $400,000 before even a foot of film had been shot.

A competent piece of “canned theater” and a surefire box-office prospect, ARSENIC AND OLD LACE evinced even less of the famed “Capra touch” than MEET JOHN DOE —although it was scarcely a typical Warners-style picture either. Capra shot the picture quickly, mainly because of his pending war-related commitments. ARSENIC AND OLD LACE was completed in early 1942 but remained on the shelf at Warners owing to agreements with the play’s producers. Finally released in 1944, ARSENIC AND OLD LACE was a solid hit, further enhancing Capra’s market value and bargaining position, while scarcely refining his personal style.


Alfred Hitchcock’s career in 1940-1941 followed a path dramatically different from either Ford’s or Capra’s. By the late 1930s, Hitchcock was among Britain’s leading filmmakers and was well known in the United States thanks to transatlantic hits like THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1934), THE THIRTY-NINE STEPS (1935), and THE LADY VANISHES (1938). Selznick began courting Hitchcock in 1937 and in 1938 convinced him to leave the deteriorating conditions in England. Hitchcock signed an exclusive seven-year contract (starting at $2,500 per week) after Selznick agreed to put up $50,000 for the rights to Daphne du Maurier’s forthcoming novel, Rebecca . 24 Hitchcock had brought the book to Selznick just before its publication, and like Gone with the Wind —purchased for the same price in 1936— Rebecca was an immediate publishing sensation and an international best-seller.

Hitchcock began work on the adaptation in early 1939, while Selznick was preoccupied with the yearlong shooting and editing of WIND . Thus, there was little of the producer’s characteristic interference during the scripting and production of REBECCA . Selznick did bring in another writer, Robert E. Sherwood, to collaborate with Hitchcock and his coscenarist, Joan Harrison, on the adaptation. Selznick also cast the picture, deciding on the freelancer Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine, who signed a long-term contract with Selznick to secure the role. There were considerable difficulties with Breen and the PC A about the story line, most of which were handled by Selznick’s story editor, Val Lewton. Hitchcock shot REBECCA in the fall of 1939, meticulously planning each camera setup and working at a pace that Selznick found maddeningly slow. The producer kept his distance, however, concentrating on W IND and knowing that he would take full control of REBECCA during postproduction. Indeed, Selznick made certain of that, while REBECCA was still in production, by agreeing to loan Hitchcock to Walter Wanger to direct FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT after shooting REBECCA . Hitchcock reported to Wanger in October 1939, at which point Selznick and his editor, Hal Kern, began editing REBECCA as they completed their work on GONE WITH THE WIND .

Released in March 1940, REBECCA was a huge critical and commercial hit, establishing Hitchcock’s “trademark” status in Hollywood and bringing Selznick back-to-back Academy Awards for best picture—an achievement still unmatched in industry history. Sold as both a “Selznick production” and a “Hitchcock picture,” it did represent a melding of their respective styles and interests. Like GONE WITH THE WIND , REBECCA manifested Selznick’s fascination with lavish adaptations of ill-fated love stories favoring the heroine’s viewpoint, with the star-crossed lovers victimized by events beyond their control—and events which enhanced the film’s capacity for visual spectacle. Hitchcock, conversely, was more interested in the psychological and “atmospheric” dimension, thus bringing to the romantic melodrama the qualities of a suspense thriller. Indeed, the melding of styles in REBECCA helped generate what came to be termed the “female Gothic” cycle in wartime Hollywood, with Hitchcock as its prime purveyor.

Significantly enough, Hitchcock did not pursue that effort in collaboration with Selznick, who was thoroughly drained after and REBECCA . In fact, Selznick quickly adjusted his filmmaking role from producer to agent and “packager” in 1940—1941, a change that had considerable impact on the careers of Hitchcock and other contract personnel of Selznicks, including Joan Fontaine, Ingrid Bergman, and the director Robert Stevenson. Because he had signed them to exclusive service contracts, Selznick was committed to pay his talent only their stipulated salaries, regardless of their actual market value. So on the Hitchcock loan-out to Wanger, for example, Selznick collected $5,000 per week for Hitchcock’s services but paid the director only $2,500. He then “pocketed the overage,” which on FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT came to $40,000 in clear profit. Selznick did raise Hitchcock’s weekly compensation to $2,750 in June 1940; then in August he cut a two-picture deal with RKO, loaning Hitchcock for a minimum of thirty-two weeks at $5,000 per week. Hitchcock found this maddening, but he clearly relished the degree of independence it afforded.

Thus, Hitchcock began an extended period of his career as a filmmaker-on-loan, during which he continued to refine his personal style and also to consolidate both his creative autonomy and trademark status. FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT , released in the fall of 1940, was an espionage thriller in the tradition of THE THIRTY-NINE STEPS and THE LADY VANISHES and thus was something of a reversion to form. The first the RKO pictures, MR.AND MRS.SMITH (1941), was a romantic comedy and thus a radical departure for Hitchcock, and its critical and commercial failure reinforced his commitment to the suspense thriller. He was back in his element on the next RKO project, SUSPICION (1941), another female Gothic à la REBECCA with Fontaine (on loan from Selznick) reprising her role as the naive bride who comes to suspect her husband (Cary Grant) of being a murderer. 27 As in REBECCA , she is mistaken, although in this case the happy ending did not play well with preview audiences. Hitchcock considered a revised ending for the film wherein Grant does indeed murder his wife, but RKO balked at the idea. The studio’s reluctance was borne out when SUSPICION emerged as a solid commercial hit and scored several Oscar nominations, including best picture and best actress (which Fontaine won).

In November 1941, Selznick arranged another loan-out of his star director, this time as part of a package deal with Frank Lloyd, an independent unit producer at Universal who agreed to purchase the story, script, and direction for SABOTEUR , a war-related spy thriller. After raising Hitchcock’s salary to $3,000 per week, Selznick sold Hitchcock’s original story and the script (cowritten by Harrison, Dorothy Parker, and Peter Viertel) to Lloyd for $70,000 and loaned Hitchcock’s directorial services for $9,000 per week with a fourteen-week minimum. 28 Thus, as Ford and Capra both were setting off to do armed services training films and war documentaries, Hitchcock settled in to do fictionalized war films, gaining a greater degree of authority and creative control with each subsequent “Hitchcock picture.”

Hitchcock’s increasing autonomy and success in 1940—1941 is instructive on several counts, particularly in contrast to Ford and Capra. Whereas those two longtime Hollywood filmmakers had difficulty operating outside the familiar factory system of film production, Hitchcock actively pursued independent status and clearly flourished as a freelance producer-director. And from all indications, that success came not despite but because of his lack of experience in Hollywood. As indicated earlier, Hitchcock came from outside the studio production system and brought with him a set of assumptions about filmmaking, film style, and the filmmakers role that were distinctly at odds with Hollywood’s. The success of his films ensured his ongoing leverage within the system—and with Selznick—and thus ensured his continued independence as well.

Other newcomers to prewar Hollywood were even more aggressive in their efforts to redefine the filmmakers role within the studio system and to redefine the bounds of cinematic  and narrative expression in the process. The most aggressive of these filmmakers, without question, was Orson Welles, who arrived in Hollywood in 1939 from a brief but spectacular early career in theater and radio in New York, signed on with RKO as a quasi-independent producer-director-writer-actor, and proceeded in his very first picture, CITIZEN KANE (1941), to radically redefine not only the process of Hollywood filmmaking but the nature and range of cinematic expression as well.

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